Schubert's piano sonatas are masterworks of lyricism, beauty and introspection. They combine momements of the greatest sadness and tragedy in the face of death with passages of joy and exuberance. Much as they are influenced by Beethoven, Schubert's sonatas have a voice irreplaceably their own.
In this new Phillips CD, Alfred Brendel offers live performances of five Schubert sonatas. The release is part of an "Artist's Choice" series in which the performer selects choice recordings to make available to the public. The recordings Brendel selected were taken from live performances in Salzburg (1984), Frankfurt (1988 and 1999) and London (1997). The liner notes include a brief introduction by Brendel and excellent brief treatments of the sonatas by William Kinderman. As these are recordings of live performances, there are awkward interruptions, (coughings, sneezings, bangings) in places. But Brendel's performances and Schubert's scores more than compensate for these distractions.
The main attraction of this set is the opportunity to hear a great deal of Schubert, including the A minor sonata, D. 784, the unfinished C major sonata, D. 840, "Reliquie" the G major sonata, D 894, and the final two sonatas, in A major, D 959 and B flat major, D 960. Brendel offers beautiful and well conceived recordings. He omits the repeats in the opening sonata movements.
I found the B flat major and the G major sonatas received the most compelling readings on the set. The B flat major sonata is Schubert's last work for the piano written just before his death. It is a monumental and intimate composition, with its flowing, death-haunted opening movement and its deeply introspective slow movement. The scherzo and the finale are in sharp contrast with the opening as Schubert decided to counterbalance sorrow with lightness and joy.
The G major sonata dates from 1826 and is sometimes described as a fantasy with four long, disparate movements. It has become my favorite Schubert sonata over the years. The work is long, even omitting the repeats, slow, and requires concentration to perform and to hear. Brendel takes the opening movement at an appropriately slow tempo, bringing out Schubert's combination of thought and song. The second movement includes passionate outbursts in the middle section while the two outer movements are full of gaiety and lyricism.
The A major sonata, D. 859, is largely an elevated and serene work, filled with the joy or creative effort and making music, in contrast to its tragic B flat major companion. The work centers on a deeply sorrowful slow movement in a walking tempo which includes great tragic outbursts. But the tragedy of this movement is more than answered by the rest of the work, especially by the beautiful, cantabile finale. Schubert there resurrects a theme from his earliest piano sonata to create a work of great depth and hope. In this finale, Schubert expressed a transcendent feeling of aspiration and hope through song.
The three- sonata in A minor, D. 784 is an earlier work (1823). The opening movement features a stern, angular opening theme contrast with a lyrical second theme of great beauty. There is a short, songlike middle movement, followed by a rapid finale which again contrasts a sharp a minor theme with a second theme of a dreamlike character. The "Reliquie" sonata, like Schubert's much more familiar, eighth symphony was left unfinished. But is is a work of the same lofty character with a lyrical, varied opening movement, and a sad, flowing slow movement.
Although they took many years to achieve recognition, Schubert's piano sonatas are among his greatest achievements. This CD by a great modern interpreter of Schubert, will reintroduce or reacquaint the listener with truly inspiring music.